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Welcome to the World of Programming!

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Greg Perry, co-author of Sams Teach Yourself Beginning Programming in 24 Hours, offers some advice and encouragement to all newcomers looking to learn their first programming language.
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I’m so thrilled to get this chance to welcome you to the exciting world of computer programming!

I have a little history under my belt, having started programming back when I was in the 11th grade. That was so many years ago that there were really only two computers widely sold for homes in the world: the very first Apple and RadioShack's TRS-80. A few other small computers were available, but only on a limited scale. This was 1978, and although some of us really enjoyed the new little home computers that were coming out and knew what they were capable of, we had no idea that the entire world would be changed by the microcomputer.

That term, microcomputer, is what we used to call them. There were lots of large computers for sale back in those days, and we had to distinguish between the small little home computers (often being built from parts by hobbyists) from the ones that businesses used. Those were called mainframes and minicomputers back then. You hardly ever hear those terms anymore.

Today there are still large computers being used, but the majority of computers in the world are the ubiquitous small computers that sit on almost every desk in the world (called desktops), and just about on every lap (laptops), as well as in almost every phone! And by “majority,” I’m talking about hundreds of thousands more; yes even millions more small computers sold today than those huge mainframe computers that used to be so common in businesses. Now only extremely large, global corporations and governments need those large computers. For the rest of us, the computers we know and love are small, and it seems as though every home and business has lots of them!


You can imagine that someone like me who has been programming computers since high school (long before high schools ever taught programming) has seen a lot over the past 40 years. And I like what I see!

The most important thing I can tell you right now is that programming computers is a lot of fun!

It does not matter if you are young or old - you will enjoy learning how to program. You will finally be able to get a computer to do exactly what you want it to do! That's what programming is all about: telling a computer step-by-step exactly what to do next. In a way, you are the author of a program which will be your creation, your own personal set of rules for computer telling the computer exactly what to do next.

Learning the Language of Computers

Computers are actually not very smart in spite of the fact that they may seem to be on the outside. Computers are nothing more than dumb machines that can only do somewhat basic tasks. Their advantage, however, is that they can do those tasks very, very fast. So fast, that when we use a computer it appears that they're doing more than one thing at once. At the basic level, they aren't. They are simply following a programmer's instructions one step at a time. (Modern computers do have multiple “cores” in their central processors that can process multiple instructions at one time, but at their essence each core is doing one step at a time.)

Most of the time to learn how to program a computer you must learn a computer language. I said earlier that computers are not very smart, and they really are not. They don't understand English or Spanish or French or Italian. They only understand very basic and rigid computer programming languages. So if you want to program a computer, you will have to learn one of those languages so that the language you speak will be what the computer understands. Otherwise, computers cannot follow your instructions, known as your program.

A program to a computer is a lot like a recipe for a cook in the kitchen. When a cook follows a recipe, he or she must follow each step to be successful with that recipe. You as a programmer must create a program so that your computer does exactly what you want it to do. And keep in mind, your computer will do exactly what you tell it.  That means if you say something incorrectly, your computer will try to do it incorrectly. This is where errors arise. In programming talk, we call such errors bugs. The better you get at programming, the fewer bugs you will have in your programs and the more likely that a computer will do exactly what you want it to do.

Programming Languages Are Not Completely Foreign!

Although the language that you learn for your computer is not any language you speak, you will see many words that are similar. In other words, when you look at a computer program you can recognize most of the words in it. You may not know how they work in relation to a computer. You may not understand that they are commands that do certain things. But at least the language is not completely foreign in that if you speak English, you will see such words as For and Next and Define and Get and other words that are very familiar to you.

The hard part is putting those words in the exact order needed for computers to know what to do. And that is where you will spend your time when you learn how to program.

A common question asked when people first decide to program a computer is which programming language is the best. That is impossible to answer. If only one programming language were the very best, then there would only be one to choose from! What we find is that various programming languages do some things better than others. So the language you choose to learn depends on what you need to do.

One of the best places to start is learning a very simple programming language. Even though most of today's computers are very graphical with icons, buttons, images, video, and colorful screens, if you step back and learn a text-based programming language first (such as languages called C or BASIC), you will find that you can avoid much of the clutter that more advanced languages have. By that I mean you won't have to worry about how icons and video images appear on the screen. Instead, you can focus more on the computer language itself. You can focus on learning how a computer follows different commands.

The good news is, once you learn your first computer language, even if it is a text-based language, the next language that you learn becomes much easier! Most programming languages have similar aspects; they just follow those aspects differently. For example, although these terms may be new to you now, you will soon enough know all about things called:

  • Loops
  • Variables
  • Subroutines
  • Functions

And that’s only scratching the surface. Yet, almost every computer language in existence uses these concepts, just in slightly differently ways from one another. That is why when you learn one language, even if it is a very simple one, the next one becomes easier for you to learn.

There are so many languages to choose from, one of the things you will have to decide is exactly what kind of programming you want to do. Do you want to create webpages? If so, they use their own set of languages that are not true programming languages. These languages have names such as HTML and CSS. But other, more traditional programming languages can interact with HTML and CSS. This is why the world of programming today can seem extremely complicated to a newcomer. To create an interactive webpage, for example, you might have to learn all three of these languages:

  • HTML
  • CSS
  • Java

Or if you want to create apps for your favorite smartphone, you may need to learn a completely different set of languages. At first, narrowing down your options may seem a bit daunting.

For Now, Just Focus on the Nature of Programming

Don’t worry about all of those details right now. Don't worry about whether you want to learn Python or Java… Instead of being so specific, just decide on a simple introductory language and focus on learning it well. Even if you never use that language in the future, everything you learn will pay itself forward.

When you then move to a more complicated environment, such as a total Windows immersion programming language where you have to deal with icons, labels, graphics, colors, moving images, and menus, at least the programming language itself will no longer be a hindrance.  Many newcomers try to jump into one of the new graphical platform languages and end up overwhelmed. It turns out that once you have some basic skills under your belt and understand a few simple programming concepts, all of the graphical elements that come with the more advanced tools used today will be very easy to integrate into your programs.  Start small and build up.

I wish you an exciting and highly rewarding programming career!

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